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Gift of the Gods: Olive Oil in Antiquity

A crop of equal importance to grain and wine, the olive has been cultivated since the Early Bronze Age, with evidence of its growth in Crete predating the arrival of the Minoans—the first of the Greek civilizations—around 3000 B.C.E.  The ability of the olive to thrive in the warm climate of the Aegean coast made it a key agricultural asset, and its resilience heralded the olive as a resource that went well beyond nutritional value. The ancient Greeks and Romans, keen observers of nature's bounty, recognized the ideal conditions that their lands offered for cultivating this hardy tree and utilized the olive not only to sustain dietary needs but to enrich the daily lives of the people as a highly valued commodity. Though some were eaten as a part of their diet, the significance of the olive extended far beyond its role as a source of food. Most olives were pressed to produce olive oil, which was prized not only for its nutritional value but also for its uses as an essential component of personal hygiene, a base for fragrant perfumes, a fuel for lamps and a sacred element in religious ceremonies. Though utilized throughout the Bronze Age, olive trees were not widely cultivated until the Archaic period due to the long interval between plantings and productive yields, and the increasing need for grain. The Greeks began to venture to new lands for resources, and with a rise in colonial activity, the olive followed the movement of wine westward. In the sixth century, Athens was a commercial center for oil export, and the Greeks had introduced olive cultivation to Italy. By the third century BC, we learn of planting, specialized tools, and grafting, as olive culture became commonplace in Italy (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988).  The cultivation of olive trees was more than an agricultural endeavor; the growing, gathering, and processing of olives became a fine art and cultural cornerstone of Greek and Roman societies. Ultimately, the humble olive came to shape and reflect the economies, daily routines, and spiritual lives of the Greco-Roman world. 


The warm climate, low altitude, and well-draining soils of the Mediterranean coast were peculiarly suited for the olive. In the ancient Aegean, farming was at the mercy of erratic and unpredictable rainfall. However, the olive was able to tolerate periods of droughts (Foxhall, 1995). During olive culture’s nascent years, most Greek farmers planted new trees with cuttings taken from existing wild olive tree trunks. Typically, olive trees only yielded a good crop in alternating years and required a significant length of time to reach its fullest maturity, and as a result, farmers had to stagger their crops and supplement olive production with sheep pasturage or other agrarian activities (Nardo, 2007c). The ancient Greeks had recognized these natural phenomena and adapted to this cycle accordingly, and by the time of the Roman Empire, olive culture had improved dramatically. In 65 A.D., Latin agricultural writer Columella describes a method to mitigate limitations and harvest annually. He states, “Once the olive grove is established and ready for bearing, divide it into two sections, each to be draped in fruit in alternate years (it is a fact that the olive tree is not productive two years in succession). When the field beneath has not been sown, the tree in sending out stalks; when the field is filled with crops, the tree is bearing its fruit. So, an olive grove divided in this way delivers an equal return year by year” (Columella c. 65/2020). The Romans preferred the method of grafting to plant new groves, a horticultural technique used to join parts of two or more plants, so they grow as a single unit. A common practice in Roman agriculture, ancient writers such as Cato and Pliny the Elder discuss the practice and techniques of grafting in great length and highlight the method’s ability to improve crop yields. Well aware of the tolerance of the olive to rock terrain and poor soils, Cato even provides explicit instructions as to the types of olive to plant in the various types of soils (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1998). The olives were then harvesting between the months late October to mid January, to be eaten plain or as an ingredient, though most were used to produce oil, which was particularly valuable (Boardman, et al., 1976).

 


Mosaic illustrating the harvesting of olives (ca. 1st quarter 3rd century)
Figure 1: Mosaic illustrating the harvesting of olives (ca. 1st quarter 3rd century)

Because of their great importance, the growing, gathering, and processing of olives and olive oil became a fine art. According to Roman agricultural writer Varro, it is recommended to carefully hand-pick the olives within reach rather for the best oil yields. Those that were beaten down would shrivel and bruise, resulting in minimal oil. The best class of harvested olives would be used for eating, and the second used for oil production (Sherwood et al., 2020). Those intended for oil were placed on the shelves until they had become reasonably soft, though they could not be left in piles or the oil would become rancid, and instead were arranged in singular layers. According to Pliny the Elder, “it takes greater skill to master the production of oil than wine, since the oils that come from a single olive tree are not in fact the same” (Pliny the Elder c. 77 A.D./2020). Extracting oil from the harvested olives involved three main steps: crushing the olives, pressing them, and separating the oil from the water. For many centuries, olives were ground with stone using a mortar and pestol, but by the classical period, specialized presses had been developed (Boardman et al., 1976). Once harvested olives were ripe enough, they were typically sent to the trapeta: a device consisting of a large stone saucer in which two millstones with roughened surfaces revolve and crush the olives (Sherwood et al., 2020.) Once this first step had been completed, crushed olives were pressed to squeeze out the oil. This could be achieved either by putting the olives into bags and placing heavy weights over them, or by putting them in a mechanical press that employed a large wooden beam to squeeze them (Nardo, 2007c). Once an olive grove had been established, it generally endured for many years, and each tree could be relied on to provide considerable amounts of oil. While a smaller plant might only yield 10 kg of fruit, one mature tree could produce as much as 50 kg (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988). However, due to the extended maturation period of olive trees, numerous farmers opt to plant or graft them in anticipation of their elder years or for the benefit of their children (Boardman et al., 1976). In Natural History, Pliny wrote that even Hesiod, “who believed that agriculture should be one of life’s fundamental studies, observed that no one who had planted an olive tree had actually picked any fruit from it – that is how slow the operation was in those days” (Pliny the Elder c. 77 A.D./2020).

 

The olive, particularly its oil, served as the primary source of fat in the Graeco-Roman diet and was available to people within all social strata, often serving as an additive to grains and other foods to make them more appetizing. The ancient Greeks and Romans also developed a method to preserve olives in salt for future use and cured them in wine or vinegar. In his treatise On Agriculture 56-59, Cato even discusses how he rationed his food sources to slaves and laborers, including portions of preserved olives and olive oil. Roman gourmet Apicius adds that an ideal way to preserve olives is to immerse them in oil and discusses salted olives as an ingredient in boiled chicken, and chopped fresh olives as stuffing for a bird to be cooked (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988). Because it takes several years after planting for the olive tree to bear fruit, and the unproductive period of the tree being two times greater than that of the vine, olives were not initially grown to satisfy any immediate dietary needs. Rather, in many places, it became an important resource for the economy. From Bronze Age Crete, a number of olive stones and vats for separating the oil have been found (Hamilakis, 1999). The oil storage areas within Cretan palaces of the Bronze age and literature discovered in Mycenean cities attest to the presence of olives and oil, though do not reference its as a source of nutrition. Instead, it became the most common excipient used for unguents and perfumery, as olive more easily produced in large quantities of oil than did sesame, almond, or other oils commonly available in the Near East (Brun, 2000). Since the origins of antiquity, perfumed oils and incense have been used for worship and other religious rituals dedicated to the gods, as well as to anoint kings and priests who were believed to embody these deities. Additionally, they were widely utilized for funerary rituals, medicine, or for pleasure. 

 

Perfumers of the Mycenaean kingdom were provided with a number of ingredients to create fragrance, such as henna, saffron, rose oil, cyperus, and coriander, though much of the process and equipment used to make perfumes remains obscure (J. S., 1986). Several hundred tablets from the Palace of Knossos mention oil deliveries that were to be processed by perfumers, who’s workshops were often located at the east entrance of the palace (Brun, 2000). Palaces often directly involved themselves in the agricultural activities from which they could generate income, such as cereals, sheep, linen, and of course, olive cultivation (Foxhall, 1995). As the production of olive oil in Crete intensified during the Bronze Age, the palace became central to the economy and keeping olive oil in regular supply. Perfumed oils were systematically produced, stored, and distributed from within the palace walls (Boardman et al., 1973). It seems as though the great magazine and oil jars in the palace of Knossos alone could have contained about 16,000 gallons of stored olive oil (“Foodstuffs, Cookings, and Drugs,” 1998). Many houses outside the citadel wall were also seemingly devoted to oil production, which could have been a significant factor in the state economy. The records left behind by the Mycenaean civilization indicate rations of oil were not only dispensed to individuals, but to the deities as well, indicating that olives played a role in religion even if only as a valued commodity. They also reference transactions and trades which detailed costs and quantities of olive and perfumed oil (Boardman et al., 1973). The organization involved in the collection and distribution of olive oil was complex, and the devoted lands for production and storage, both within and outside the palace walls, are tangible remains of the role olive culture played in that time.  

 


Fresco of Cupbearers at the Palace of Minos (ca. 1600 BC-1400 BC)
Figure 2: Fresco of Cupbearers at the Palace of Minos (ca. 1600 BC-1400 BC)

Palace bureaucracies came to an end with the onset of the Dark Ages, and the olive is of little account. It was not until the seventh and sixth centuries that the olive regained its position of economic significance in Greek lands (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988). During these years, Greek colonial activity expanded significantly in the western Mediterranean as a result of the innate desire for exploration, and an increasing population which eventually began to limit the available resources on Greek lands. In Italy, a number of amphorae—tall pottery vessels with two handles used to transport liquids overseas—have been unearthed, as well as tiny vases that held perfume for personal use (Will, 1977). Particularly in Hellenistic times, amphorae often bore stamps or paint that indicated the name of the estate owners where they were produced, or of the merchants who were responsible for transporting them overseas. They also frequently included weight and shipping information, along with stamps or painted inscriptions indicating the estates or owners of origin. To transport the vessels, the amphorae were typically stored and arranged in tiered layers on the ship, with archaeological findings of shipwrecks revealing that a single merchant ship could transport several thousand amphorae in one trip (Nardo, 2007a). However, not all parts of Greece needed to respond to this challenge. Athens, and its rural district of Attica, had land better suited for olive cultivation than for grain, and deliberately turned to specialized farming focusing on wine and oil (Boardman et al., 1973). These items were marketed and could then pay for the wheat that was needed, without having to send citizens to find new lands (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988). According to one tradition, the first olive branch that reached Greek lands was carried by a dove from Phoenicia and brought to the temple of Zeus in Epirus (Turril, 1951). Still, the Athenians credited this fruitful bounty of olives to Athena, the goddess after whom the city was named. While there are many variations, legend claims that their patron goddess was in competition with Poseidon for the role of protector of the city. As a token of her power, Athena produced the olive tree and gifted it to Greeks as she touched the ground of the sacred rock of the Acropolis. Consequently, the olive came to acquire religious significance.


An essential source of nutrition and economic development, olive cultivation in the Graeco-Roman world became highly developed. In the early sixth century, the Athenian lawgiver Solon forbade the export of any agricultural produce with the exception of olive oil, and passed laws to regulate the planting and cutting down of olive trees (Boardman et al., 1973). The case of Athens is not an isolated one, though. In Delos, inscriptions regarding farming leases for the domains which belonged to the Apollo sanctuary detail leasing conditions, including various duties and responsibilities that farmers were required to fulfill. One of them stated that farmers were required to prove that the number of olive trees they had left behind matched the number they had found, or else they would face a fine (Roussel, 1987). Dated to the late fourth to early third centuries B.C., the tables of Heraclea in Lucania list the regulations by which the sacred domains of Athena and Dionysus had to abide. Whereas the domains of Athena “are leased for very short periods and planted with vines, Dionysus’s domains carried long-term hereditary leases in order to allow new vines and new olives to be planted” (Brun, 2000, p. 284). While olive oil served as an essential source of food, ancient peoples found many uses for it beyond cooking or consumption.


For centuries, olive oil had served as a principal source of fuel for light, and was preferred over other oils, such as linseed or sesame, as it is able to burn without producing a bad odor. It could also be produced in larger quantities and did not compete with grains for arable lands to grow (Tyree and Stefanoudaki, 1996). The light provided could prove mediocre in quality, but the Greeks lived in accordance with the natural cycles of sunrise and sunset. Most of their waking hours and activities were spent during daylight, so insufficient lighting did not seem to pose any difficulty, though lamps were used for late night study or recreation (Sherwood et al., 2020). The Greeks used small, shallow vessels made of ceramic, and sometimes metal, that burned wicks fueled by olive oil, most often of the poorest quality. These and could be placed on stands, or suspended by chains, and survive in a variety of sizes (“Housing,” 2001). Torches were employed outdoors, which would burn a brighter flame and help one navigate their way through the streets at night (Nardo, 2007b). In early Roman times, the chief source of indoor lighting was provided by candles which rested in candleholders. Torches, however, were made from dry wood and often soaked in oil as a means to light the streets and walkways. From the late Republic onward, candles were largely replaced by olive oil, as well as melted grease or fish oil (Nardo, 2002). They were typically made of pottery, but tradesmen of the empire also utilized bronze, glass, gold, silver, and stone that displayed elegant and unparalleled craftsmanship. In his work Penumatics, Greek mechanical engineer Hero of Alexandria describes a lamp with a self-adjusting wick (Sherwood et al., 2020). In Athens, Greek traveler and geographer Pausanias describes a golden lamp for the goddess Athena in the Acropolis. He states, “They fill the lamp with oil and wait until the same day the following year [to refill it], and that amount of oil is sufficient to keep the lamp alight night and day during the interval” (c. 150 B.C.E/2020). Alight with olive oil, this sacred lamp was more than a mere source of light; it symbolized divine presence and protection, and its flames served as a perpetual tribute to Athena's wisdom and guardianship. She was also commonly depicted in the form of small lamps in the shape of a bust that were widely used for the nocturnal festival of lights, a celebration held in Sais, Egypt for the goddesses Athena and Neith—the Egyptian goddess of creation, wisdom, and war (Smoláriková, 2016). According to Plato, the Egyptians themselves had asserted that Neith and Athena were the same goddess. From the beginning of the sixth century B.C., the Greeks had been well acquainted with the customs of Sais, and the festival of lights was recorded by Greek historian and geographer Herodotus. He states:

When the assembly takes place for the sacrifices, there is one night on which the inhabitants all burn a multitude of lights in the open air round their houses. They use lamps in the shape of flat saucers filled with a mixture of oil and salt, on the top of which the wick floats. These burn the whole night, and give to the festival the name of the Feast of Lamps. The Egyptians who are absent from the festival observe the night of the sacrifice, no less than the rest, by a general lighting of lamps; so that the illumination is not confined to the city of Sais, but extends over the whole of Egypt. And there is a religious reason assigned for the special honour paid to this night, as well as for the illumination which accompanies it. (ca. 400s B.C.E./1976)

These small terracotta lamps also could have been presented as offerings at the shrine of the goddess. Some of them were produced in the form of a square or oval building, or represented other gods such as Dionysus, Zeus, and Eros. However, Athena was the most common of the dieties depicted, and the most recognizable as she was often portrayed with her shield and crested helmet (Smoláriková, 2016). Mirroring the stars of the night sky, these lamps were considered to illuminate the paths to the deities. 


Interior of a red-figured vase illustrating Athena, Hercules, and an olive tree (Douris, ca. 490-470 B.C.E.)
Figure 3: Interior of a red-figured vase illustrating Athena, Hercules, and an olive tree (Douris, ca. 490-470 B.C.E.)

The olive also played a significant role in athletic events of the ancient Greek world. There were hundreds of athletic competitions, most prestigious of which were the Panhellenic games—from pan (all) and helenikos (Greek). By the sixth century B.C., the Panhellenic games expanded fom Olympia and were also held in Isthmia Nemea, and Delphi, attracting athletes from all areas of Greek lands (“Olympic Games Begin, 776 b.c.e.,” 2012). Many smaller, local festivals and ceremonies modeled their athletic competitions on the Panhellenic games. With no concept of amateur athletics, the Greeks competed simply for honor, though victorious athletes eagerly accepted an assortment of valuable prizes. At Olympia, the prize wreath was symbolic, but in other cities winners of the Olympic games were rewarded with cash bonuses, free meals, and a number of other gifts, including but not limited to crowns of olive leaves, and olive oil (Kyle, 1996). The role of women in athletic competitions was limited, as they were not permitted to participate in the games, with the exception of parthenoi—unmarried young women (Dillon, 2002). However, at the start of the games, it was the responsibility of the priestess to light the Olympic Flame on the alter of Hera’s temple. The priestess would use a concave disc and some olive oil as a means to harness the rays of the sun and ignite a flame. Around the time of 175 A.D., 900 years after the first victory at Olympia was recorded, (Greek traveler and geographer) Pausanias wrote about the city and accounted for the relationship between women and their role in the Olympic games, at the temple of Hera, and in the Heraen Games for girls. He states that the Heraen Games were held every four years, consisting of foot-races for girls of different age brackets. The youngest were the first to run, after them come in the next age bracket, and finally the last to run were the oldest of the maidens. As they run, “their hair hands down, a tunic reaches to a little above the knee, and they bare the right shoulder as far as the breast.” (175 A.D./ 1984). The winning maidens were awarded a crown of olive leaves, as well as a portion of cow which was then sacrificed to Hera. They may have also dedicated statues with their names inscribed to Hera, though none have survived (Dillon, 2002). Moreover, some women engaged in activities such as juggling, chariot driving, and horse racing (Spears, 1984). In Athens, the Athenians held the Panathenaic Games, an annual athletic competition in honor of their patron goddess Athena. The victors of these games would be rewarded with the finest and most expensive quality of olive oil, cultivated from the sacred grove on the rocks of the Acropolis. Only the winners were allowed to possess this particular oil, which they could sell to the export market. The winner of the stade—a running event—would be gifted with 100 amphorae of olive oil, equivalent to more than $67,000 today (Kyle, 1996). The winner of the men’s sprint at the Panathenaic Games were also awarded a prize of 100 amphorae of olive oil—enough money so that the champion could go on to buy several homes or half a dozen slaves (“Athletics,” 1988). The winner of the most prestigious event, the quadriga (four horse chariot race) would receive as many as 140 amphorae of olive oil, more than any other game. These amphorae, capable of holding near 40 liters, often depicted images of the victor’s event (Neils & Tracy, 2003). On its reverse side, the official emblem of the games was displayed: a depiction of the fully armed goddess Athena, positioned between two pillars, one of which would be inscribed a message that identified these amphorae as a prize of the Panathenaic Games. Though not as costly, symbolic wreaths made from sacred olive leaves and branches were considered equally prestigious as the amphorae and were received with great honor. 


In Classical Greece, it was regular practice for athletes, or those who had indulged in strenuous activity, incuding women, to rub olive oil over their bodies and then scrape from their skin the oil, dirt, and sweat, with a tool called a strigil—a curved metal tool with a handle and concave blade (Boardman et al., 1976). The basic equipment of most athletes consisted of only the strigil and an aryballos—an unguent jar of olive oil (Kyle, 1996). Once the oil had been removed, the body was once again lightly rubbed with oil. Though it possible for one to complete this task alone, ancient sources suggest that it was easier to have help. As athletes did not have shoes, a uniform, or endorsements, the strigil was an essential piece of equipment used to anoint, cleanse, and prepare oneself for athletic events. Though it offered better protection against the wind than the sun, olive oil was also significant in protecting the skin against the natural elements. The athletes were at the mercy of the eastern Mediterranean climate, which featured strong winds that would dry, irritate, or burn the skin; such exposure would cause painful chapping or scaling (Moynahan, 1973, p. 195). Thus, it was crucial for athletes to anoint themselves in oil to maintain a barrier of moisture and protection, as windburn or chapping might otherwise weaken their performance. The athletes of the ancient world were revered as heroes, and held in the highest esteem, so much that the sweat and oils accumulated during competition or physical exertion were considered a valued commodity. Known as strigimentum in Latin and gloios in Greek, the exfoliated sweat and oils from the bodies were thought to contain powerful healing properties, particularly those of athletes, and were even sold to the general public (Scanlon, 1997). Hoping to absorb some vitality and strength of the athlete, admirers would anoint themselves with the gloios of the athletes. To sell the gloios, the strigil was used to scrape and collect the substance from the surfaces of the gymnasiums and collect it into clay vessels. The proceeds were vital in funding the operations of ancient gymnasiums and assisting the gymnasiarch, who was responsible for managing and maintaining these facilities (Pappas, 2022). Special contracts were also issued, and the vendor who held such a contract would have been required to provide a ‘palmistry security guard’ to monitor the collection of gloios (Scanlon, 1977). In Natural History, Pliny adds that the substance was also used as an ointment for medicinal purposes such as inflammations of the genitals, muscle pains, sprains, and inflamed joints (Pappas, 2022). 


Illustration from a Greek vase depicting athletes using the a strigil (The Codrus Painter, ca. 430 B.C.)
Figure 4: Illustration from a Greek vase depicting athletes using the a strigil (The Codrus Painter, ca. 430 B.C.)

The Romans were also proponents of the strigil and largely utilized it in bathhouses, particularly those who frequented public baths and gymnasiums—athletes and non-athletes alike. During the private bathing sessions, slaves or laborers were responsible for preparing the oil, assisting with its application, and scraping the oil and sweat off the bodies of the wealthy. Roman women of high social status were also able to purchase vials of this oil to use as a luxury facial cream. Olive oil was the cornerstone of Graeco-Roman athletics and recreation, symbolic of both physical well-being and cultural significance. In his work On Agriculture, Varro makes note of its significance, stating “The olive follows the same two paths to the farmstead as the grape: one part for solid food, the other to flow forth as a liquid to anoint the body both internally and externally. So it is that the olive follows its master into the baths and gymnasium!” (1834/2020, 1.55.4-6). While athletes were particularly associated with the use of the strigil due to their frequent participation in physical activities, the practice was not limited to them, nor the elite. Individuals from various social classes and occupations engaged in bathing rituals and used the strigil as part of their personal hygiene and grooming practices. In ancient Greek mythology, goddesses also partook in bathing rituals, where the cleansing and anointing with olive oil were not only acts of physical purification but also symbolic expressions of beauty, vitality, and divine connection. In Homer's Odyssey, the story of Nausicaa unfolds as she ventures to the riverbanks with her handmaidens to wash the family laundry. While there, they encounter Odysseus, who has been shipwrecked and washed ashore. Nausicaa, guided by Athena, takes pity on him and offers him assistance. After completing their laundry, Nausicaa and her companions bathe themselves in the river. Following the bath, they rub themselves with olive oil, enjoy a leisurely lunch, and engaged in a game of ball (Spears, 1984). Just as Nausicaa and her companions ritually rubbed themselves with olive oil after bathing, so did many ancient Greeks and Romans. Her tale offers a glimpse into the role olive oil played in rituals of personal hygiene, leisure, and social interaction in daily life, where bathing was not only a means of physical cleansing but a symbolic of communal activity.


When considering hygiene practices, and the proverbial luxury of the Roman public bathhouses, it is important to note that the Greeks and Romans achieved a reputation for high standards of cleanliness, almost entirely without the use of soap. However, when combined with other substances such as sand or ash, could be used as an exfoliant or ‘soap’ substitute (Myres, 1953). Seafarers may have used this substance to help remove the salt and grime that had accumulated during long voyages. Since olive oil has natural anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties, it was also used as a means to promote healing and prevent infection in minor wounds and injuries. Ancient medical practitioners, like Hippocrates, alluded to the perceived effectiveness of the oil in moisturizing the skin, as he prescribed olive oil to promote the healing of a variety of ailments from dry skin to wound care (Sherwood et al., 2020). Its hydrating properties and ability to create a protective barrier on the skin likely made it ideal for seafarers and traders, who were regularly exposed to the sun and salty sea air, and for soldiers during military campaigns. Soldiers were also known to apply olive oil to cuts, wounds, and abrasions to help clean and protect the injured area. Because of its healing abilities, olive oil was also extensively used as medicine to cure earaches and sickness, aid in digestion, treat mouth ulcers and skin conditions, among many other purposes (“Olives,” 1998). According to Hippocrates, olive oil was well suited to heal diseases. If one was sick, it was recommended to use a hot unguent—paste of olive oil and alkali—and apply it to the skin. It would then be removed using a sponge rather than the strigil, since its natural emollient qualities were thought to soothe irritation, reduce inflammation, and promote healing, Hippocrates advocated for the use of olive oil both internally and externally as part of his holistic approach to medicine. However, olive oil transcended its role as a mere medicinal treatment; it was also widely utilized for cosmetic and aromatic purposes. 


Fresco illustrating cupids making perfume at the House of Vettii in Pompeii (ca. 62-68). 

Figure 5: Fresco illustrating cupids making perfume at the House of Vettii in Pompeii (ca. 62-68). 


With the rise of palestrae and baths during the Hellenistic and Roman periods came a resurgence in the perfume industry that held significant economic importance. Although available to members of all social strata, the perfume industry soon provided a range of perfumes that varied in quality and relative rarity, distinguishing aristocracy from the common folk (Brun, 2000). Like the Mycenaeans of the Bronze Age, the Greeks and Romans used olive oil to serve as the base, and fragrances were extracted from Mediterranean plants such as rose, iris, saffron, and genista (Sherwood et al., 2020). From the start of Greek civilization, the panhellenic cult required the production of perfumes. Both the Illiad and the Odyssey mention the use of fragrant oils used by goddesses, who employed them lavishly for anointing corpses and for their own profane use. In the Iliad, Homer (1488/1976) describes Hera, in preparation to seduce her husband Zeus, “anointed herself with the delicious olive oil she uses. It was perfumed and had to be stirred in the Palace of the Brzen Floor for its scent to spread through heaven and earth. With this she rubbed her lovely skin” (14, 171-175). In the Homeric Hymns (21488/1976), “The Graces bathed (Aphrodite) with heavenly oil such as blooms upon the bodies of the eternal gods, oil divinely sweet, which she had by her, filled with fragrance” (Hymn to Aphrodite 61-63). Statues were doused in perfumes, and fragrance was used in great quantities for funeral preparations of the corpses, their clothes, the funerary bed, and the pyre (Brun, 2000). Plain olive oil, with no added fragrance, was also important in the rituals accompanying death and burial, and oil flasks were regular offerings in tombs (Boardman et al., 1973). Although the use of perfume may have largely served religious purposes, fragrant oils were in constant demand as they used by those who went to the gymnasia or baths, serving both men and women alike. During the seventh to sixth centuries B.C., there was a significant rise in the production and trade of perfumes, largely from Corinth. The city specialized in the production and exporting of perfumes, and often decorated the vessels they were carried in with illustrations of flowers and animals (Brun, 2000). For a while, the iris of Corinth was of the highest value, though as Pliny (c. 77 A.D./2020) notes in Natural Histories, fragrances would lose their favor, and new scents would prevail. In the Hellenistic period, he documented that the most prized perfume now came from the city of Delos. Perfumes were not quite appreciated by the Romans during the early years of the Republic; however, they soon began to appreciate the new luxury, and by the second century B.C., perfume consumption increased considerably (Boardman et al., 1976). Subsequently, perfumes were produced on increasingly larger scales. In Campania, the production and cultivation of oil had reached near-industrious levels, and flowers, particularly roses, were bountiful. Due to the high cost of certain ingredients, and the value of such ingredients, the production of perfume during the Imperial era proved fruitful for not only perfumers and owners of the rose fields but also for estate owners of the olive groves (Bruns, 2000). Representative of the importance of perfumery within the economy, shops were typically located in city centers, such as those of Delos and Corinth, as well as Rome during the Hellenistic and Roman periods. From the forum, perfume shops were able to cater to the needs of public baths, temples, and funerary ceremonies. 


Olive oil was also employed for a myriad of other purposes, including but not limited to pest control, leather conditioning, and linen treatment. After olives had been sent through the trapetus, and the oil harvested, a watery residue was left behind. Varro noted that this substance, called amurca, could be used as a low-grade fuel, fertilizer, or natural weedkiller. In the case of the latter, it was used to keep weeds down around the olive trees (“Foodstuffs, Cooking, and Drugs,” 1988). Pliny discusses the use of amurca as a form of pest control, to keep away ants and woodworms among other animals and insects. He suggests rubbing the lees of olive oil on floors, walls, and pavements of granaries, as well as all leather items, shoes, bronze vessels, and the axels of wheels in order to keep off verdigris and to give them a more attractive color (Sherwood et al., 2020). In Homer’s Odyssey, there is also mention of olive oil as a treatment for new linens. However, it is unclear whether the oil was used as a means to make the linen appear glossy, or if it was intended to showcase the fine craftsmanship of the tightly woven linen. The multifaceted uses of olive oil, from pest control and leather conditioning to linen treatment and beyond, illuminate the myriad of ways in which olive oil could be utilized for practical purposes. The profound impact of the olive on the Mediterranean basin cannot be overstated. The cultivation, harvesting, and processing of olives have influenced all aspects of ancient life, from daily activities and routines to cultural celebrations and rituals. The value of olive oil was augmented by its versatility, permeating nearly every facet of ancient Mediterranean existence and enhancing quality of life. The meticulous care taken in tending olive trees and the skilled production of oil reflect the profound understanding of the environment by the Greeks and Romans, as well as the intimate relationship they shared with the lands that sustained them. Literary evidence, alongside the extensive archaeological findings, reveals a relationship between man and the olive tree that goes beyond mere nutritional and economic value; it was the cornerstone of Ancient Greece and Roman culture.



Bibliographical References

Boardman, J., Kenyon, K. M., Moynahan, E. J., & Evans, J. D. (1976). The Olive in the Mediterranean: Its Culture and Use [and Discussion]. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 275(936), 187–196. DOI: 10.1098/rstb.1976.0080


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I'm interested to see how the mosaic artwork incorporates figures alongside depictions of the olive harvest. This approach not only helps tell the story of olive oil production but also serves to emphasize the Buildnow GG human labor involved in cultivating and processing these fruits.

Mi piace
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